Editor's Note: For the first time in the history of the San Mateo County Fair, a 300-page anthology has been published that includes more than 100 stories, poems and essays from writers who submitted award-winning work for the fair's literary contest. The idea was the brainchild of Bardi Rosman Koodrin, a San Bruno resident who runs the fair's literary contest, and the anthology, titled "Carry the Light," features work from many Peninsula writers.
This story tells of the author’s journey through the Amazon to a village of the Yagua Indians.
From p. 116, “The Walking Stick”
The large muddy Amazon River winds in and out as we follow its southwest zigzag course in our fast motorboat. Where the river makes a sharp turn, the current cuts into the clay on the shore, creating steep banks. The opposite side, which isn’t fully impacted by the current, has many small beaches, some with tall grass.
Huge logs and branches in the water are not the only danger for our old boat. When I help to bail out the water leaking through the bottom, I imagine myself being eaten by piranhas or alligators. I start to wonder if I will survive my expedition to the Yagua Indians.
* * *
Walking into the thick forest, I smell rotten wood in the damp coolness and listen to the exotic sounds of birds, monkeys, and insects. With each step I take, my feelings change from annoyed to lost, then abandoned, overwhelmed, assaulted, and ruined. I am falling apart, and finally dead.
There’s nothing to be afraid of. I trust Reni, my college-educated guide. The longer I observe this native Peruvian man, who is walking in front of me, the more I realize that this forest is his childhood. His wife and son are waiting for him in Iquitos. No matter which direction he goes when he leaves the city, he ends up back in his childhood, because all the roads out of Iquitos lead to the jungle.
* * *
I start to panic as we come upon some barefoot people who are wearing the strangest clothing I have ever seen. The men have a bark girdle around their loins with foot long fibers hanging to their knees, which makes them look as if they are wearing mops. Similar but smaller mops hang around their necks, arms, and calves. In addition, they wear necklaces and bracelets made of seeds, animal bones, and feathers. Their black hair is cut into bangs across their foreheads and hangs straight down the sides. Each one is wearing a unique headdress of dried grass and feathers. Their skin is tawny yellow and painted in red and black designs.
The women dress almost identically, with the neck mops covering their breasts. The only difference is that they tie a strip of reddish brown cotton cloth around their hips.
* * *
Reni takes me to a remote hut at the edge of the village, where I am shocked to find a white woman waiting for me.
“Hi, I’m Ursula,” she says. She appears to be about forty-five, and is wearing a white blouse with a long red skirt slit down the side. Her long hair is covered with a bark hat. Wetting a cloth in a ceramic bowl, she washes the paint off my face.
Ursula hands me a clean white blouse and a long red skirt just like hers.
“You’re soaked in sweat,” she says. “You can change behind that curtain.”
When I return, I see that on a long, simple wooden table that could serve eight people, she has a supper ready fit for a queen: fish from the river, some birds, bananas picked while still green, yucca, and exotic local fruits.
“Won’t you join us?” Ursula says from the table, where she and Reni are sitting on a wooden bench.
I sit down across from them.
A young man is sitting quietly in a corner. As we begin to eat, he picks up a guitar and begins to play softly.
“You’re a wonderful cook, Ursula,” I say. “What a surprise to find you in this village. How did you get here?”
“Like you,” she said. “I came as a tourist, then left, and the next year I returned for good.”
“I’m not a tourist,” I say, somewhat defensively, “and don’t want to stay.”
“You are very brave to come here alone.”
“I had a crazy idea to follow in the footsteps of a Czech adventurer named Eduard Ingris. He lived with the Yaguas in the 1950s for some time, very peacefully. If he were to come here today, he would see many changes.”
“Back then, they made their houses by tying long poles together at the top like Gothic arches, which made them look like gigantic beehives.”
“What did Ingris do with the tribe?”
“He filmed their life. Actually, he had a great time living on the Amazon, playing the guitar and singing for the people. They had never seen a guitar before. After a while, Ingris noticed that he never saw anybody kissing. Then he realized that the Yaguas express affection with caresses. When an actress came down from Hollywood to be in his film, Ingris had her and her boyfriend demonstrate to the Yaguas how lovers kiss in America.”
“So, that’s where they learned it!” she said, laughing.
“His film is an interesting documentary. It shows that the Yaguas in the Fifties had not yet assimilated Western culture. They led a simple life, hunting and gathering, and drinking and dancing at night. Do you make films, too?” I ask.
“No, I’m a doctor.”
“Do the shamans share their secrets with you?”
“It takes years to gain their trust. Some foreigners never get it.”
After dinner, the young man starts playing his guitar louder and louder as the rest of us sit on the floor around a fire.
Ursula suddenly kicks off her sandals and starts stamping her feet on the wooden floor to the rhythm of the music. Then, with one motion, she flings her hat against a wall, sending her loose hair down to her waist. Her eyes widen and her face takes on a strange expression as she dances wildly. Finally, she drops exhausted to the floor. Then, without warning, she lifts herself up slowly, grabs her sandals, and runs out into the night without a word.
Excerpted from "Carry the Light" with the permission of Sand Hill Review Press, the publisher. The book is available for purchase for $12 on Amazon.com.
Jarmila Marie Skalna is a Czechoslovakia–born author. She has published five books and two of them have been broadcast over Czech radio. As a writer of fiction, her stories offer a fresh perspective, alternating freely between realism and fantasy, and also including close-ups of famous personalities. As a representative of P.E.N. in Los Angeles and the Society of the Czech Writers in Prague, she participated in a several International Writer’s Congresses in Europe and Australia. She has been published in the literary magazines and anthologies in the both countries. Check out her work at jmskalna.com.